On February 19, 2020, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published a new General Handbook. Among many textual revisions, the handbook included updated language related to the law of chastity. In addition, the Church Education System announced an updated Honor Code at Church educational institutions. The purpose of this update was to standardize the language of the honor code across all Church institutions, and this involved removing some unique (non-standard) language from BYU Provo’s Honor Code that singled out same-sex affection and romance as a violation of the code.
It appears that some individuals at the Brigham Young University Honor Code Office misinterpreted the updated language as a shift in the Church’s attitude with respect to same-sex dating and romance. They communicated this to students who met with them in their office, as well as to some faculty members. Because their novel interpretation was never committed to writing, it is unclear whether others in the BYU administration shared or authorized this interpretation. However, many others across campus and social media picked up this ball and ran with it.
The primary argument was based largely on unstated subtleties: President Nelson said in a devotional last fall that, pursuant to new policies, “homosexual immorality would be treated in the eyes of the church in the same manner as heterosexual immorality.” Subsequently, all references to homosexual behavior (besides same-sex marriage or sexual relations) were removed from the handbook, and chastity was defined as “abstinence from sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman.”
This, many concluded, represented a paradigm shift towards greater moral symmetry with respect to homosexual and heterosexual relationships. They argued that if it’s not unchaste for a heterosexual couple, it’s not unchaste for a same-sex couple. If kissing and holding hands is virtuous for boy and a girl who are dating, it’s equally virtuous for two boys who are dating. There’s one law of chastity, after all, and it’s the same for everyone — it becomes unchaste only when it involves sexual relations or marriage, because that is where the handbook now draws the line.
It’s a clever argument, and within a week, a sizeable plurality of faculty and students were persuaded by it. A dear friend and colleague reports that he was the only person at a BYU department faculty meeting that did not see this as a welcome capitulation to LGBT interests. One finance professor told a class of over 1200 students that the Church now sees same-sex dating and romance as morally equivalent to opposite-sex dating and romance. (He also warned that students who express different views may face academic discipline.)
The uncertainty was profound enough that those who disagreed were largely awaiting clarification before correcting anybody. As a consequence, those advancing this interpretation were the loudest voice in the room for nearly two weeks, until Elder Paul V. Johnson sent a letter clarifying that same-sex dating and romance were not compatible with the principles of living a chaste and virtuous life.
A More Ministerial Approach
I think that Church leaders are moving towards a more ministerial approach towards those who experience same-sex attraction. Policies, even inspired policies, can have unintended consequences. For example, last year, President Oaks announced that same-sex marriage would not be treated as apostasy for the sake of church discipline (a policy that was set in place in 2015). He emphasized that it is still a serious sin (and the handbook still lists it as a potential reason for church discipline). But apostasy was previously listed as an occasion where discipline was required.
The unintended consequence of the prior policy was that same-sex couples who had (in their minds) left the church years or decades earlier were being summoned to disciplinary councils when they would be better just left alone. But stake presidents and bishops were following through with the logic of the handbook: same-sex marriage was defined as apostasy and apostasy was something that required a disciplinary council. It made it seem like the church was “hunting down” some of these people, which simply wasn’t the case (or wasn’t intentionally the case).
This is pure speculation, but I think it’s possible that Church leaders may be recalibrating other policies that have resulted in similar, inadvertent distortions and imbalances. It may be that, because of the prior wording of the handbook and BYU’s honor code, same-sex attracted members of the Church faced disproportionate ecclesiastical and disciplinary responses to similarly-serious sins.
Consider this hypothetical: Steve does regular NCMO and light petting with girls in the ward, is told to stop by the bishop, and that’s the end of the story. James occasionally slips up and holds hands with another man, and he has his ecclesiastical endorsement for BYU withdrawn, and ends up dropping out of school. The prior wording of the Honor Code made this more likely than not, given the way it singled out James’ behavior. The point here is not to trivialize James’ behavior (perhaps we should de-trivialize Steve’s instead). The point is that roughly comparable lapses in moral discipline have far greater personal consequences for James than for Steve.
I’ve no idea how various sins really stack up against each other in relative severity. That’s likely impossible to parse, and counterproductive to try. However, my speculation is that across thousands of cases, these sorts of disparities in attention and severity may accumulate, and in the aggregate, it really could lead to same-sex attracted members feeling targeted by their ecclesiastical leaders, the Honor Code Office, and fellow members. And this could lead the brethren to conclude that some minor recalibration is needed. (Again, this is all speculation. I’ve no verification for any of this.)
It’s clear from Elder Johnson’s clarification that same-sex affection is still not consonant with the principles of chastity and virtue (and that was never intended to change). But with these adjustments in language, Church leaders may be seeking a gentler and more pastoral approach to James (in the hypothetical above), with more flexibility and discretion available to ecclesiastical leaders and Honor Code administrators in how they respond. And perhaps that was more difficult when same-sex affection was singled out as occasion for discipline.
The new approach is (and was likely always intended to be), “No, we are not saying this is OK. But we are also no longer saying this is automatic grounds for expulsion either (although that’s still on the table, depending on the circumstances). We will be handling this on a case-by-case basis.” Note that Elder Johnson’s clarifying letter did not publicly commit the Honor Code Office to any particular approach. But it was a strong signal that they were to abandon the permissive rhetoric with respect to same-sex dating and romance that they had adopted the weeks before.
The Deeper Principle of Gender Complementarity
I’ve seen a number of people continue to claim that the prior policy, and Elder Johnson’s clarification, represents a fundamental double standard in Church teaching and culture. Some ask, “Why can’t two boys hold hands and kiss, when we consider it lovely and virtuous for a boy and girl to do the same?” We can still hold the line on marriage and sex, but if it’s chaste for a man and a woman outside of marriage, why isn’t it chaste for two men (who are similarly unmarried)?
The answer is that the Church has always taught that being chaste involves more than abstaining from sexual intercourse. The reason that dating and kissing are chaste outside of marriage is not because they are not sex, but because they are part and parcel with courtship, the beginning of a relationship that anticipates fruition and eventual consummation in marriage. Romantic liaisons — including dating and kissing — cannot be cleanly separated from the concept of courtship (or the anticipation of courtship).
This is why youth in the Church have been historically discouraged from steady dating until they are in a context where marriage can be contemplated. This is why it is prudent to date only the sort of person you can anticipate marrying. This is also why the increasingly common practice among BYU students of non-committal make-outs are unchaste (a violation of the spirit of chastity) even if they never evolve into sexual relations.
Yes, we have become somewhat tolerant of youthful explorations in the realm of dating for the sake of companionship, and we have moved away from thinking of all forms of dating as “courtship.” But this is a cultural drift towards a broadly-popular worldview that devalues courtship and marriage generally. It’s precisely to correct this drift that then-Elder Oaks encouraged the youth of the Church to forgo “hanging out” (aimless companionship) in favor of dating and courtship.
And perhaps most importantly, the norms and practices that surround dating inform our intuitions about the norms of marriage (and vice versa). We simply cannot expect to retain gender complementarity in marriage and sex while relinquishing it in dating and romance. Assuming moral symmetry for everything except marriage is an unsustainable double standard that it would make it nearly impossible to defend the Church’s teachings on marriage. Many of those who advance this position know this, and are not forthcoming in their motives for embracing this view.
Jesus and the Pharisees
The law of chastity forbids sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman. But the principles of chastity do not end there. They imply a host of norms that extend far beyond mere sexual abstinence. They imply gender complementarity in dating and romance. They imply chasteness in thought and attitude — for example, not treating others as a means to end, or as a tool for personal satisfaction. They imply a sense of discretion and prudence with regards to intimacy even within marriage. None of this is encoded in the letter of the law, but this (and much, much more) is implied in the spirit of the law.
But is this putting up fences around the law, adding layers of tradition and rules beyond the law itself? Isn’t this what the Pharisees of the New Testament did? Not at all. We often think of the Pharisees of the New Testament as being too strict in their understanding of God’s laws. But this isn’t the best way to describe it. The Pharisees of the New Testament were extra legalistic in their interpretation of God’s laws, but not always because they wanted to be strict. It was just as often because they wanted to excuse their own sins.
For example, it is not pharisaic to conclude that NCMO is out of harmony with the principles of chastity and virtue. Rather, it’s pharisaic to casually make out with strangers and justify it by claiming they’ve never “violated the law of chastity” (e.g., no sexual relations). This relies on a legalistic (and narrow) understanding of chastity (“not having intercourse”), and rationalizing sinful ways by staying within the boundaries of that legalistic interpretation. Let’s look at some real scriptural examples, and contrast them with Jesus’s response (some liberties are taken here in wording):
The Law: “Love thy neighbor.”
The Pharisees: “But who is my neighbor? Surely not my enemy…”
Christ: “Yes, even your enemy.”
The Law: “Live chastely.”
The Pharisees: “But we have never committed adultery!”
Christ: “If you have lusted after another man’s wife, you have committed adultery in your heart.”
The Law: “Keep the Sabbath day holy.”
The Pharisees: “We do so meticulously!” [Counting steps, etc.]
Christ: “Have you given any thought to doing good and serving God? If not, then you have made it different, but not particularly holy.”
In many of these examples, the Pharisees used legalism to excuse themselves. (On other occasions, they used legalism to condemn others. Hypocrisy is a two-way street.) The Jesus of the New Testament pierced right through the excuses of those who sought to trivialize or minimize their sinful ways. Let’s look at a final example from recent times:
The Law: “No sexual relations outside of marriage between man and woman.”
Them: “But two men who are making out aren’t having sex, so surely they are fine, right?”
Christ: ___________ (I’ll leave it up to readers to fill this in.)
In short, the Pharisees selectively used the letter of the law to justify flouting the principle of the law. And so when officials in the honor code office — and finance professors — were (wrongly) telling people that the absence of that specific language forbidding same-sex affection meant that gay couples could chastely date and make out, they were being equally pharisaical. Discipleship involves striving to understand the deeper principles, and then using sound judgment and discernment to determine how these principles should filter into our norms and practices. There is one law of chastity, yes, and it implies gender complementarity in all the norms and practices surrounding marriage (including those of dating and courtship).
I believe that we can and should engage in a more ministerial response to those who identify as gay and lesbian within the Church. We should carefully consider ways in which we make them feel uniquely targeted. We can and must examine our rhetoric and policies for ways in which we can show these individuals Christ’s love for them. And in the process, we must keep in mind Elder Holland’s 2012 caveat:
Having said that, I remind us all that while reaching out to and helping back a lamb who has strayed, we also have a profound responsibility to the 99 who didn’t—and to the wishes and will of the Shepherd. There is a sheepfold, and we are all supposed to be in it, to say nothing of the safety and blessings that come to us for being there. My young brothers and sisters, this Church can never “dumb down” its doctrine in response to social goodwill or political expediency or any other reason. It is only the high ground of revealed truth that gives us any footing on which to lift another who may feel troubled or forsaken. Our compassion and our love—fundamental characteristics and requirements of our Christianity—must never be interpreted as compromising the commandments.
It is absolutely true that we must learn how to talk about our teachings with greater tact as we enter into this brave, new post-heteronormative world. In a world where same-sex relations and marriage are considered normal (and even beautiful), we must learn to advance our views with requisite delicacy. But we must also resist the implication that it is bigotry or unkindness to assert that gender complementarity in dating, romance, and marriage should be normative at the very least within our faith community, if not also in the world at large. These teachings are not likely to change, and as covenant members of the Church, we need to become comfortable with them.
I count myself as among those who, out of uncertainty, waited for clarification before publicly expressing my views on these matters. The cacophony of voices proclaiming this as a capitulation to LGBT interests was loud enough, and the lack of immediate clarification startling enough, that I didn’t know what to think. In retrospect, it was silly to think that the Church might relinquish gender complementarity in dating and romance through unordained BYU Honor Code officials. It has never been more essential to heed Elder Oaks’ warning about alternate voices, and to keep our eyes and hears tuned to what the Lord’s servants are teaching, and that includes the principles outlined in the Proclamation on the Family.